On Sunday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) may have delivered a final blow to the United States’s best chance to take action on the climate crisis this decade.
After months of negotiations with the White House and Democratic leaders, Manchin announced on Fox News that he will be a “no” vote on the centerpiece of the president’s domestic agenda in its current form. That agenda — known as the Build Back Better Act — would have invested $555 billion in clean electricity, electric vehicles, and reducing methane emissions. Although the $1.75 trillion bill has already passed the House of Representatives, a no vote from Manchin would ensure the bill does not have a path forward in the Senate. That’s because Democrats were relying on a budget process that requires 50 Senate votes to get it to President Joe Biden’s desk.
As Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote, it’s possible that Manchin’s Sunday comments were just another negotiating tactic, and he could be convinced to support a revised version of the Build Back Better plan that delivers on what he wants.
But if the bill truly is a goner, it will be much more than a political setback for the Biden agenda. It will be a colossal tragedy for the planet and future generations, which are depending on the US government to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels this decade with major legislation like this bill, to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The bill also contains funding for adapting to climate change and helping the most vulnerable communities; without it, the US will be far less prepared to face escalating climate disasters here at home.
It’s unlikely Democrats will have exactly the same set of political circumstances — in control of both the presidency and Congress — to pass a similarly ambitious climate agenda in the next decade. “We won’t be acting on the climate crisis if we don’t pass this bill, and there’s not a decade left to waste,” said Leah Stokes, a climate political scientist at UC-Santa Barbara who has been advising Democrats. “Senator Manchin talks a lot about that and what he owes to his grandchildren, and the number one thing he owes to his grandchildren is a livable planet.”
Democrats probably won’t get a second chance after next year’s midterms to act. And the next time they do have a chance, it may be too late to limit some of the worst effects of warming.
The US can’t reach its climate goals without congressional legislation
If passed, the Build Back Better Act would deliver the largest injection of federal funds into clean energy and emissions reductions that the country has ever seen. It would tackle the two biggest sources of US pollution that come from the transportation and electricity sectors, by boosting clean energy, electric vehicles, and charging stations.
The US is responsible for the largest share of global warming, so serious federal action is essential to closing the gap. Climate scientists have warned that once the atmosphere warms more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, we will live in a drastically changed world. If countries, corporations, and individuals don’t take immediate action to reduce pollution, the world may hit that grim milestone in just 10 years.
The bill would also literally save lives. For example, its clean energy funding would help close the nation’s last coal plants, eliminating an energy source that releases particulate matter that contributes to asthma, heart attacks, and other diseases. One Harvard estimate found that reaching 80 percent clean electricity by 2030 would save 9,200 lives in 2030 alone, and another 317,500 through 2050.
Finally, the bill would dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars to helping communities prepare for worsening floods, heat, and fires in the name of climate justice. One program would help tribes relocate away from areas threatened by climate change, and other investments would help disadvantaged communities improve their water and physical infrastructure.
By the time the bill passed the House of Representatives, progressive Democrats had already made some concessions that weakened some of the key provisions. They scaled down the overall cost of the bill and cut some proposals, including setting a national standard to reach 80 percent clean energy by 2030. All of that was to appease Manchin. It just didn’t work.
“Utter nonsense,” a “catastrophic failure”: The climate community reacts
Manchin released a statement after his Fox appearance elaborating on why he said “I just can’t” vote for the legislation. Several of his complaints targeted the climate provisions in the bill. He said the Build Back Better Act would harm the electric grid and increase dependence on foreign supply chains. He worried a faster energy transition “will have catastrophic consequences for the American people like we have seen in both Texas and California in the last two years”— likely a reference to power outages and volatile energy rates from extreme weather the past few years. (In fact, a major reason his West Virginia constituents have faced higher utility rates in recent years is coal is getting more expensive.)
Climate advocates who helped Democrats design the Build Back Better plan were grieving Sunday over what the loss would mean for both the planet and public health. Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton expert on the electricity sector and adviser to the White House on the Build Back Better plan, called Manchin’s news “devastating” and his excuses “utter nonsense.”
Sam Ricketts, co-director of the advocacy group Evergreen Action, who has advised Democrats on the bill, called Manchin “duplicitous” for leaving “the important needs of the country unfulfilled.” He countered Manchin’s claims, saying, “The Build Back Better act would reduce Americans’ energy costs, not increase [them]. It would enhance American economic competitiveness, not decrease it. It would increase the reliability and resiliency of the electric grid, not the opposite.”
Ricketts suspected Manchin had it backward because, he said, the senator was more informed “by corporate donors or by ignorance.” Manchin’s son is a leader in the coal industry, and Manchin himself has made $4.5 million from his investments in coal over the course of his Senate career. Over the past year, Manchin has reaped more campaign donations from the oil, gas, and coal industries than any other senator.
Climate activists are also dismayed because Congress has promised action for years, but failed to deliver. And they point to a larger pattern of how obstructionists — both in the Republican and Democratic parties — have sunk the US’s best chances of action again and again. Longtime climate activist and writer Bill McKibben noted that Manchin’s obstruction fits the long legacy of a Congress that can’t pass climate legislation to meet the scale of the crisis.
Joe Manchin preserves Congress's perfect record: no real climate legislation in the 33 years they've been debating the issue.— Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) December 19, 2021
There are still plenty of unanswered questions after Manchin’s announcement.
Will Congress be able to salvage a smaller deal that still delivers on climate cuts? In a statement Sunday, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) advocated for that path. “Major climate and clean energy provisions of the Build Back Better Act have largely been negotiated, scored for ten years, and financed,” he said. “Let’s pass these provisions now. We cannot let this moment pass.”
Another question: Could Democrats find another legislative vehicle that will finally win Manchin’s support? Progressive lawmakers have already pointed fingers at the White House and Democratic leadership for their political failure, but some have hinted there may still be a path forward.
We are facing unprecedented challenges and #BuildBackBetter is about tackling them head on: addressing the climate crisis, fighting inflation and giving hard working Americans a shot at prosperity. To walk away from those challenges is the height of irresponsibility and betrayal.— Rep. Veronica Escobar (@RepEscobar) December 19, 2021
Grieving climate activists also echoed that this isn’t a moment to give up. “This is the last best shot we’re really going to have to enact national policy that deals with the climate crisis in the scope and scale that’s necessary,” said Ricketts. “We still have a Democratic president in the White House who has claimed that climate is a top priority for his administration. Now let’s see them deliver.”